A national study on state supreme court elections points to Texas as a leader in campaign fundraising in 2016, when Justices Paul Green, Eva Guzman, and Debra Lehrmann were re-elected.
The trio, all Republican incumbents on the all-Republican panel, raised a combined $4.2 million to retain their seats, the second highest amount raised by state supreme court candidates in the U.S. after Pennsylvania.
All three justices faced primary opposition in 2016, driving up the amount they needed to gain another six-year term. The primary challenges to Lehrmann and Green were close — both won their party’s nomination by a 52 percent to 48 percent margin.
Justice Eva Guzman raised $1.1 million in her race, the sixth highest amount raised in the nation between 2015 and 2016. Lehrmann’s $994,854 placed her tenth highest.
From the study, done by the Brennan Center for Justice in New York:
State supreme court elections used to be low-cost, sleepy races.
That era is over.
In many states, they are now costly and politicized battles and the role of big money, with its attendant questions of special interest influence over the courts, is growing more pronounced.
This proliferation of states and judges impacted by high-cost elections leaves a cloud hanging over much of the nation’s state court system, with the effects of such elections lingering beyond any particular election year.
The practice of the judiciary is supposed to be above political reproach, with decisions based on law. Interpretation of that law is also subject to point of view. Some practitioners, including judicial officers at all levels, construe words and legislative intent differently, making partisan tilts to decisions inevitable.
In an interview with the Texas Standard, one of the study’s authors, Alice Bannon, pointed out that Texas was among the first states to hold expensive, partisan judicial races, going back to the 80s.
“Texas in some ways was the canary in the coal mine and then since then we’ve seen a number of other states follow that pattern,” Bannon told the Standard. She added that more than half the states had million dollar elections this year, and “Texas was one of them. And that was a record. The previous high was 19 back in the 2007-2008 election cycle.”
A 2012 story from the Center for American Progress notes, “While 38 states elect their state supreme courts, only six elect justices in partisan races — Alabama, Illinois, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Texas, and West Virginia.”
Municipal and school board races in Texas, meanwhile, continue to be nonpartisan, at least when it comes to looking at a name on the ballot.
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].